Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

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Using game design to learn about land stewardship

For the fall 2012 Land Stewards class at Prescott College I designed an assignment to complement the main library research essay. For the main writing assignment for the class, students were asked to pick a farming system somewhere in the world, or that had existed at some point in time and write a review of the scholarly literature available on this farming system. Students picked their farming systems early in the semester and as they were conducting their library research, I asked them to use what they had learned by mid-semester to design a board game that reflects the consequences of management decisions made by farmers in that system, both in terms of crop yields and environmental impacts. The games were geared towards high school age students and I’m hoping to give some of them a test run in Prescott high schools in the future.

I was introduced to The Farming Game by friends in the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. It’s a Monopoly-style game designed by growers in Washington’s Yakima Valley region. In the game, you inherit some land from an uncle who passes away and the goal is to make the farm profitable enough that you can quit your off-farm job and become a full time farmer. We played the game in class and talked about how games can be used to teach the players about specific farming systems and the management decisions involved. In the future I’d like to incorporate Pit into my teaching, a game designed in 1904 to simulate the decision making of commodities traders in the Chicago Stock Exchange. “Take that, Mom, I’ve cornered the market on Barley!”

Years ago, a friend and colleague Steve Vanek invited me to help test a farming systems game that he had designed specifically for farmers in the Bolivian Andes to learn about how their management decisions can impact nutrient management on their farms for many seasons to come. The game was simple in physical design, just consisting of different types of beans representing N, P and K (plant macronutrients), but extraordinarily complex in the potential scenarios and outcomes through a list of decision matrices; “If you spend money now to build a terrace, you will save X% of soil erosion in the future and have higher yields in the next round”. I was intrigued by how a simple set-up could convey the multi-year impact of seemingly minor management decisions made by growers. While designing the curriculum for Land Stewards, this experience came to mind and I wanted to see what the students would come up with.

I was impressed with the wide variety of very well designed games that came out of this assignment. Each game had to incorporate 20 “nuggets” of information about the farming system that had been gleaned from scholarly sources during the students’ library research. Games went through a round of internal review in a rough design format with other Land Stewards students and a round of external review wit the final versions evaluated by my first year students in Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Systems. What follows is just a sampling of games (there were 12 in all) and video of one of the games that didn’t use a card or board game format.


The Front Range Game
Loosely modeled on “Spoons” and models management decisions made by landowners in present day Colorado


Loosely modeled on “Monopoly” and models the management of a small-scale aquaponics facility in downtown Phoenix


Carrots being grown hydroponically over an aquaculture tank containing a single species of fish. Farmers can add crops and fish species as they make a profit selling their products in each cycle around the board.


Dairy Days
Loosely based on “Monopoly” and models multiple types of dairy farming in Oregon’s Willamette Valley


Models ancient Incan agriculture


Land Stewards students evaluating preliminary drafts of farming systems games


Mongolian Nomadic Pastoralism game
Livestock and their human herders need to make it to higher elevations during seasonal migrations to find pasture


Models connections between different aspects of modern Biodynamic farms


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Tierra Y Libertad Organization (TYLO), Tucson, AZ

During the 2012 Border Food Summit, I got to take an urban agriculture tour of Tucson where we visited the Tierra Y Libertad Organization and learned about their urban agriculture center and neighborhood projects. At the time, they were just starting up a tilapia aquaculture project.

From their Facebook page:

“Since 2001 TYLO has focused on building multiple examples of positive social change and community transformation in the barrios where we live. Work of the organization is carried out through a multi-tier model of grassroots community organizing and popular education that consists of four key programs: Barrio Sustainability Project, TYLO Freedom School, MAIZ, and the Migrant Rights Organizing Campaign!”

Recent projects include campaigns against liquor licenses (There are currently 41 permits in a 1 mile radius) and the creation of a Barrio Food Processing Center. I look forward to finding ways that Prescott College students can collaborate with TYLO in the future.


Mural from the alley behind TYLO


Mural from the alley behind TYLO


Mural from the alley behind TYLO


TYLO collaborates on this nearby garden at a church


TYLO collaborates on this nearby garden at a church

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SAEA 2012 Comparative agroecology at a liberal arts college: Assessing sustainability and comparing US & Chinese farming systems

David Hougen-Eitzman of Carlton College gave this talk at the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Education Association conference in the session: Transformative food systems programs, coursework and curricula. His students have the amazing opportunity to tour, study and evaluate the sustainability of farming practices in China during a winter field course and compare those farms to others in the US. In the talk, David covers how he organizes the course in terms of small group student projects and the course readings and sustainability assessment tools he uses in the curriculum. I’m excited to incorporate similar sustainability assessment tools into my teaching and really enjoyed hearing about this course.

Carleton College

Carleton College students tour a farm in China
Photo from:

Carleton tea farm

Carleton College students tour a tea farm in China
Photo from:

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The Automat, no longer exclusively for fast food

While riding my bike back to Wageningen from a Phytopathology department lab outing to the nearby zoo in Rhenen, I almost fell off my bike when I saw this farm automat. Out by the road in front of the van Laar family’s Boerderij Welgelegen there is a unique sort of farm stand. This one is not on the honor system like so many road side stands in the US, but instead anyone with a hankering for fresh eggs, recently dug potatoes or farm-made jam feeds some Euro coins into the machine, punches in a code and retrieves their goodies. I was intrigued to say the least!


Family farm roadside automat, between Rhenen and Wageningen


Doors are numbered for purchasing choices like a vending machine

Automats have a long history in both the Netherlands and the US all the way back to the early 1900s. They are basically the same concept as vending machines, although for the hot snacks someone has to prepare the food and load it into the back of the machine. Belgium is working on a fully automated frittes (French fries, or should I say Belgian fries, with mayo) vending machine so hot food automats could become much more automated in the future. Both vending machines and automats sell almost anything you can imagine, I loved seeing the fresh bait vending machines in the Northeastern US that sold live worms for fishing. Besides being adorable and fun, automats have been in the food system news recently as many fear that the current struggle for living wages in the fast food industry in the US could create an incentive for more automation and eventually decrease employment opportunities.

Amsterdam train station

Modern fast food automat at Amsterdam central station


Vintage automat from the 1950s at the Openluchtmuseum in Arnhem
Caption translates to: The automatic vending machine is a Dutch invention from around 1900. The machines were used primarily for the sale of confectionery. In the 50s, machines were designed ​​for the sale of heated snacks.


I wasn’t kidding about the live bait vending machines! This one is at a gas station in Central NY.


I’m not sure what grass crabs are, but I’m sure fish must find them delectable



Typical US farm stand from the cabbage producing region of Western NY (Livingston County). It is on the honor system with a little box for you to put cash in.

Update: a fun video from Fans of Flanders on bread vending machines.


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SAEA 2012 Gathering Together Farm, Philomath, OR

During the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Education Association conference, we got to tour a regional farm, Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, OR. Not only do they produce wholesale vegetables, run an on-site farm stand and restaurant, sell at 9 farmers’ markets, run a 350 family CSA, but they also operate a seed business. Join us as we cover topics like organic soil nutrient management in unique soils with naturally high magnesium, how the Willamette Valley became the global hub for vegetable seed production, regionally adapted seed production and season extension.

Many folks, especially those who grew up in urban and suburban areas, haven’t heard of or seen a grange. Does the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry ring a bell? No? Years ago, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Live Oak (#503) grange in Santa Cruz, CA by the organization that was funding my research at the time, the Organic Farming Research Foundation. I learned about the history of the populist grange movement and a modern movement to revitalize many of the US’s dying grange halls with a sustainable agriculture twist.

Gift for the grangers / J. Hale Powers & Co. Fraternity & Fine Art Publishers, Cin'ti. ; Strobridge & Co. Lith. Cincinnati, O. Promotional print for Grange members showing scenes of farming and farm life. Source: Wikipedia

Gift for the grangers / J. Hale Powers & Co. Fraternity & Fine Art Publishers, Cin’ti. ; Strobridge & Co. Lith. Cincinnati, O. Promotional print for Grange members showing scenes of farming and farm life. Source: Wikipedia

Back in the Willamette Valley, Mary’s River Grange #685 hosted conference goers for an amazing local food dinner catered by Gathering Together Farms and shared their efforts to organize green granges in Oregon, “The Green Grangers“.

Game hens and eggplant. I don't usually post photos of food, but this meal was so amazing, and to eat it in a Green Grange, was quite a treat!

Game hens and eggplant. I don’t usually post photos of food, but this meal was so amazing, and to eat it in a Green Grange, was quite a treat!

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SAEA 2012 Transformative food systems education in a land-grant college of agriculture: The importance of learner-centered techniques

Ryan Galt from UC Davis gave a talk at the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA’s) 2012 conference on the importance of learner-centered inquiries in food systems education. I found a frank discussion on how to motivate and empower students to create positive changes in the food system without completely depressing them very helpful for my teaching. I’m not sure how well I did, though! At the end of each class I taught Fall 2012 I would check in with my students about our reading and discussion for that day and ask them where they were on the scale of empowered/ inspired to depressed/powerless. Apparently most of our readings were pretty depressing. While some issues in the food system can seem insurmountable, it is our challenge as educators to be honest about the current situation while providing tools for students to be constructively involved in creating solutions in line with their academic and personal interests.

Ryan is now a member representative on the SAEA steering council and we’re excited to have him and the other new members involved.

Here are some related publications from Ryan and his SAEA and non-SAEA collaborators.

Transformative food systems education in a land-grant college of agriculture: the importance of learner-centered inquiries

Facilitating competency development in sustainable agriculture and food systems education: a self-assessment approach

Engaging Values in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Education: Toward an Explicitly Values-Based Pedagogical Approach

You might also want to check out the special issue of JAFSCD on higher education and food systems.

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Working windmills in the Dutch food system

Note: Today is the one year birthday of this blog. We’re almost at 5,000 views! A huge thanks to all of the readers out there who share an interest in sustainable food systems. In celebration, I’m starting a series of posts on the European food system documenting my adventures so far living in Wageningen, The Netherlands and working as a visiting postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University.

This windmill, Molen de Vlijt, holds a special place in my heart, because it is the first windmill I’ve ever seen. I stumbled across it while taking a walk in my new town, Wageningen, this past winter. Built in 1879, the mill has survived lightning strikes, shelling in WWII and decades of neglect before being lovingly restored in 1979. This year happens to be the city of Wageningen’s 750th anniversary. I can’t wait for the special molenmarkt (mill market) this fall celebrating 750 years of milling for bread making.

Molen de Vlijt or "Mill of Diligence"

Molen de Vlijt or “Mill of Diligence”

750 years of milling

750 years of milling

The mill grinds regional organic grains and is open to the public on Saturdays. Being inside the mill while it’s running is almost like a steam punk space ship getting ready for lift off. The feeling of kinetic energy and the tremendous noise of the moving parts as the wind speeds up and slows down is very exciting.  I already knew I had a strong interest in traditional and modern food processing and preservation. I’ve toured Camas Country Mill in Oregon, and the historic Enfield Falls Mill in New York, but my experiences touring this mill have sparked a special interest in traditional wind technologies in the food system. Apparently I’m not alone, because there is an International Molinological Society that I just may have to investigate further. In this video, I take you inside the mill while it’s running from the ground floor to the fourth level. Here is a diagram of the inner workings of the mill as a guide.

Mill diagram from

Mill diagram from

Ready for baking!

Ready for baking!

Is it any wonder the Dutch are leaders in modern wind technology? Neeltje Jans, Zeeland province

Is it any wonder the Dutch are leaders in modern wind technology? Neeltje Jans, Zeeland province. And yes that is my Dad trying to push this wind turbine over into the North Sea!